Imagine that you had to choose between living your life with only the goods available in the 1950s (say goodbye to your cell phone), or living with only the health outcomes of that time (you’d live 11 years less, on average). Which would you pick?
Most people would choose the latter, which is why, in a paper published in The BMJ medical journal, the point is made that investments in improving a country’s public health should not be overshadowed by obsession over gross domestic product (GDP).
GDP represents the value of all goods and services produced in a country within one year. It does not include any measure of non-economic conditions, such as the quality of schools or the environment, or length of people’s lives.
“GDP undervalues the true worth of human health,” says Victoria Fan, lead author and assistant professor in the Office of Public Health Services in the Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. “There are other measures that can provide a fuller picture of the value of investing in health.”
Although GDP is often cited by political leaders and economists as the definitive measurement of well-being, it falls far short of capturing the value of human life.
“GDP can tell us whether the economy is growing, but it doesn’t tell us anything about how healthy and safe people are in their day-to-day lives,” said Fan. “Being healthy and safe, and living in a fair and equitable society, are important components of people’s freedom to live their lives how they truly want to.”
Other measurements better illustrate the value of health, said Fan, citing “value of life years” (VLYs) or the estimate of how much people value living longer. The question offering a choice between material goods and longer life was posed by Yale economist William Nordhaus as one way to measure VLYs.
“We think that GDP should be used alongside other indicators of progress, such as life expectancy, which captures other aspects of well-being,” said Fan.
—By Theresa Kreif